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Kazakhstan: As Economy Booms, People Care Less About Politics

The Nurly Tau business center in Almaty (file photo) (RFE/RL) June 15, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- While recent events in Kazakhstan -- such as President Nursultan Nazarbaev possibly becoming president-for-life or the scandal surrounding his former son-in-law -- were the subject of debate in the foreign media, many ordinary Kazakhs say they "couldn't care less" about the country's political scene.

"We are not into politics," some say, "all we care about is how to make money and improve our living standards." But some experts describe the phenomenon as public skepticism, not as a sign of economic stability.

Losing Interest

As the economy flourishes in Kazakhstan, more and more people in the oil-rich Central Asian country say they are less and less interested in the country's politics and politicians.

"Unfortunately, the people in our country are politically passive," he said. "We do not see any activity in political terms among our people and it does not look like it will change any time soon."

Even when the Kazakh parliament paved the way for Nazarbaev to be president for life, the move went largely unnoticed by many ordinary Kazakh citizens. There were only a few, small public protests -- mostly by independent journalists -- who took to the streets on their own to criticize the parliament's decision.

People seemed equally indifferent to all the presidential and parliamentary elections that were roundly criticized by foreign observers for falling short of democratic standards.

Many Kazakhs, especially the young, say that politicians -- the authorities and the opposition alike -- play no role in their everyday life.

Galimzhan, 28, runs his own private business, an Internet cafe and copy shop in Almaty. Galimzhan tells RFE/RL he is satisfied with the political stability and business opportunities available in Kazakhstan.

Business Is Good

"There are great opportunities to do business in Kazakhstan now," he said. "Ninety percent of my profit comes from my own business, and I think 80 percent of the population is aware of what private business means. The legislation to do business in Kazakhstan is there and it is very good. If you know the laws, it's easy to set up any business here."

Nazarbaev, who has exercised autocratic rule over the country since 1989, is seen as a sign of stability for many Kazakh people.

Living standards in Kazakhstan -- especially in urban areas -- are indeed better than the rest of Central Asia.

According to World Bank figures, Kazakhstan's $2,390 per capita Gross National Income (GNI) is the highest in the region. The GNI in neighboring Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, for example, are $510 and $440 per capita, respectively.

Unemployment is rampant in the rest of Central Asia and hundreds of thousands of Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and Tajiks make their living from seasonal jobs in Kazakhstan.

Growing Affluence

While the oil money in Kazakhstan has created super-rich oligarchs and a political and business elite in Kazakhstan, many ordinary Kazakhs have thrown themselves into small and medium-size private businesses.

With a growing income and increase in living standards, there is also a greater number of Kazakh tourists appearing in luxurious holiday resorts around the world.

So, too, is the number of Kazakhs buying property abroad and the number of Kazakh families sending their children to study in Western schools and universities.

There were numerous public demonstrations in Kazakh cities during the 1990s, with pensioners demanding their overdue payments from the government.

Nowadays, however, the pensioners receive their money on time from ATM machines, a relevantly new experience in the region.

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev (file photo)

With a growing number of new buildings -- offices, banks, hotels, and private homes -- Kazakh cities, especially Almaty and the capital, Astana, have been transformed beyond recognition.

However, far from the luxurious buildings and flourishing businesses in big cities, the picture is much gloomier in Kazakhstan's rural areas.

There are fewer job opportunities in the villages and many young people are leaving their homes in the small towns and villages to search for a better life in the cities.

With property prices skyrocketing, not every Kazakh -- especially those who come from the villages -- can afford to buy or even rent a flat in the main cities.

Aben, a 45-year-old Almaty resident, says apartments and houses in bigger cities are beyond the reach for many ordinary people like him.

"Well, look at it yourself, please," he said. "Nowadays an old, one-room apartment costs more than $40,000. To save $40,000 you have to earn at least $1,000 a month and to refuse eating and drinking for four or five years to cover that cost."

Nevertheless, according to Nurlan, a 35-year-old resident of Almaty, it is unlikely that Kazakhs would go as far as staging protests and or starting a campaign to change things by shaking up the political system.

Just Being Cynical?

"Unfortunately, the people in our country are politically passive," he said. "We do not see any activity in political terms among our people and it does not look like it will change any time soon."

Alex Vatanka, the editor of Jane's Intelligence Digest in Washington, tells RFE/RL that it is a sign of broad public cynicism that people do not trust their politicians and public servants.

Even so, Nazarbaev is a known entity to the Kazakhs, Vatanka says, and they would not easily risk trying to change the system in favor of the unknown and untested alternatives.

Apparently, it is not only Kazakh citizens who are seemingly indifferent to their country's politics.

Despite many criticisms by international observers about the widespread corruption, nepotism, human rights abuses, and election frauds in Kazakhstan, Western investment has been pouring into the country.

It seems that foreign investors -- like so many of the citizens -- also do not care much about the political practices in the energy-rich country.

(Merhat Sharipzhanov, the director of RFE/RL's Kazakh Service contributed to this report.)

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    Farangis Najibullah

    Farangis Najibullah is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL who has reported on a wide range of topics from Central Asia, including the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the region. She has extensively covered efforts by Central Asian states to repatriate and reintegrate their citizens who joined Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

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